For better or worse, the US-backed coup in Bolivia is ‘in-bounds’ at this stage of rising multi-polarity. This reality does not preclude that successful resistance to this coup from within Latin America and Bolivia itself will be both necessary and, following developmental trends, eventual.
The US Wakes up to the New Reality
Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, with 7% of the world’s total known lithium, is a tremendous resource and its capture by the US represents a noteworthy battle won in an overall losing war. The US is ‘losing the war’ if this war is a conflict to hold onto, or return itself, as the world’s sole global hegemon. But if the US has, in reality, let go of this aim then it has already entered into a period of geopolitical sobriety. This would mean that all the US efforts in its ‘own backyard’ of Latin America represent not only an attempt to right-size its power into that of a regional hegemon that has exited the global stage as a unipolar power, but can use this victory in Bolivia to give assurances to other US vested interests who may otherwise still be holding out for a return of the US onto a larger global stage. This victory in Bolivia can help these other more globally oriented vested interests, from the US, to see that focusing on Latin America and returning to a clear enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine is a much more realistic and right-sized approach to the geopolitical reality today.
One of the biggest conceptual hurdles in the post WWII discourse has revolved around the fight within the field of IR between the schools of realism and idealism. But this fight has had profound influences and indeed shaped the moral, ethical, and legal justifications for the entire post-war reality. It has shaped the foundation of the UN, of international law, and has established the framework for NGO’s, and even ultimately the Chicago Doctrine or Responsibility to Protect (R2P).
Understanding the US drives in Bolivia are neither complex, nor do they require theory to understand in raw terms. There are little complexities in understanding a bank heist or an extortion racket – and likewise a coup requires little theoretical explanation. What is apparently the case is indeed the case ipso facto.
But if there is to be any silver lining around the dark clouds forming over Latin America, it is that they are an expression of waning US global power, and the coming end of a global system which cynically exploited the best of human yearnings and intentions, and twisted them towards its own ends and compulsions, until it entirely lost legitimacy. Specifically, that is the end of the idealism-based system of universal rights and a world-system governed by these intangible and lofty ideals. In the times of war and global crisis that we have entered, the gods of conflict and strife demand that their names be spoken loudly and clearly, and not referred to by any other name. Such conflicts appear almost inevitable between great paradigmatic shifts. However, awareness of what is going on, and what is likely to happen, can give clarity to the parties involved: having an accurate idea of what is possible and what is trending can lead to more sober appraisals and ultimately can lead to a reduction in conflict and unnecessary violence.
This new paradigm is also characterized by a new era of geopolitical honesty. Increasingly, even from American vectors, we see truthful, even positive, appraisals of the utility and function of a ‘spheres of influence’ approach to ensuring security and stability between global blocs. The May 12th edition of The National Interest featured precisely this argument. In that piece, Carpenter writes that:
“The Trump administration should insist that Russia respect the Monroe Doctrine and confine its Venezuelan ties to normal diplomatic and economic relations. At the same time, it is essential for US. officials to acknowledge that the United States and its NATO allies have shown contempt for Russia’s sphere of influence—and even its core security zone—in Eastern Europe.”
Several years ago in 2015, prior to the rise of Trump, I also wrote for The Journal of Eurasian Affairs a document titled ‘From Pax Americana to Pan Americana’, which ran in 2016, detailing how we might expect such a process to unfold most optimally, in a way that would see the downsizing of US global hegemony, and its right-sizing and integration into the Latin American economy. This would involve an ideological and cultural shift in the US, but this is one already underway. This shift would make such an integration mutually beneficial and welcome for both the North American power and the rest of Latin America. The positioning, reasoning, and justifications presented by the Trump administration are a far cry from this, and yet at the same time this is a more-or-less expected reality at this stage of the game. Cultural and demographic changes continue to alter the political and ideological landscape of the US, making it increasingly compatible with Latin America and the Caribbean.
From where did the confusion arise?
The Cold War presented itself on the grand stage of history as an ideological conflict between capitalism and socialism, and therefore worked in some way to shift at least part of the focus into the realm of ideas in the abstract. This paralleled the foundational principles of the United Nations which also stressed universal and international rights of both countries and the citizens (or subjects) of those countries. Some of the more vague concepts relating to the rights of citizens of countries led to the asserted claims of foreign governments and NGO’s to interfere in the sovereign processes of other countries, all within the alleged rubric of international law and the Responsibility to Protect.
Here we found an interesting if strange confluence of international opinion: both global liberalism (market capitalism) and global socialism (the USSR, China, and socialist non-aligned states) positioned their rights to exist and expand their influences on the premise of their ideological truths and expressed ability to create better societies for the people living in them.
This had the tendency to mask the actual geopolitical conflict which existed below the ideological surface, and related to more tangible factors like access to natural resources, human capital as in labor and populations, geopolitical and geostrategic positions – both militarily and specifically physical territory.
Therefore the Anglo-US efforts against the USSR were couched as an anti-communist crusade, when similar efforts to contain Russian influence in general had been Anglo-American policy throughout the prior century during the Great Game. Likewise, British policy on China in the 19th century had nothing to do with a communist power which didn’t exist until the middle of the 20th century, but rather to control China’s resources and moreover, to keep China from rising and reorganizing itself as either a regional or global hegemon with access to and control over its own physical territory as well as natural and human resources.
After the end of the Cold War in the early 1990’s, this same framework based in idealism in international relations, found a new type of expression during the relatively short period of time in which the US existed and acted as the world’s sole unipolar hegemon. This led to its characterization as ‘Team America: World Police’.
The realities of the great achievements made by rising poles of capital and regional hegemony in the various ‘far reaches’ of the globe have been a critical and eventual trend away from the US’s unipolar moment, and towards the rising multipolar reality which increasingly characterizes the new ordering of power on the world stage.
However, it would be an error of idealist proportions to propose that idealism either created the impetus behind the machinations of US Empire, or that a realism-based approach to IR on the part of US planners would have avoided it. Realism proposes that even idealism-based orderings and justifications are in turn based in realist-driven impulses and needs. Idealism-based justifications in the areas of ethics, morality, and laws tend to serve as covers and trappings for what are in fact the ‘raw and ugly’ drives of power in and for itself.
Likewise, it is furthermore unlikely that in some alternate timeline, a realism-based justification for the cold-war along more cogent geostrategic lines would have eased tensions or lowered the stakes. In truth, chief diplomats and military brass on this side of sane have always understood the reality of power, of which idealism-based reasoning was something of a façade, even if a demagogic one.
An example of this which is easily relatable is any of the US wars in the middle-east, which were couched in the pseudo-legal trappings of an idealism, which was expressed in terms of human rights and democracy: toppling dictators and supporting the spring wave of color revolutions on the basis of these universal ideals. But critics almost universally understood that these justifications were merely cynical covers for what were in fact wars for geopolitical influence and the seizure of valuable natural resources, often oil. In the case of Bolivia, it is Lithium, among other parallel factors.
Latin American prospects
Resistance to the US coup in Bolivia, just as with the rest of Latin America, is both inevitable and justified. During the cold war in the 20th century and specifically the plight of countries emerging into a type of sovereignty within the context of the de-colonization process in the post-colonial order characterized by these values and this reality being codified in the UN Charter, sovereignty was legally and morally justified on the basis of being ethically good. Without delving into a treatise on the formative ethos of Western civilization and the Christian conceptions of good in a world of evil, what we can say about the coming paradigm is that it is refreshing in its honesty about what is right: might makes right.
The existence of the USSR provided a powerful geopolitical counterweight to US power, and provided a either a shelter or a bargaining chip for countries emerging into post-war sovereignty. In ideological terms, it is an afterthought or superstructural justification that this is ethically and morally right. The reality is that it happened because it was possible and because powerful-enough actors at the local, national levels, wanted it and needed it. These wants and needs would be very little without the possibility, however.
The US today pushes itself back into Latin America as a means to offset its declining power globally, its inability to guarantee supply lines either militarily or economically, which parallels the decline of the efficacy of the navy and air force as offensive powers.
Not because it is right, but because it can.
Not only can it, but it must – it must hedge against its overall decline, and reinforce whatever strengths it can, wherever it can.
Likewise, Latin America has trailed behind many parts of the world, and while faring better than most of Africa, subsists at levels mirroring underdeveloped parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but without the military might nor with the proximity to China and Western Europe – two economic power-houses. But still, and likewise, Latin America will rise as the trend has been, on the balance that Latin America rises. This region moves forward along the logic of ‘two steps forward, one step back’.
When Latin America becomes a full-fledged and entirely sovereign and single geopolitical entity and power locus, it will assert this not ultimately as the result of any lofty ideals or complex arguments relating to why it is good, if it is good, or whatever layered and ornate new ideological superstructures deliver this truth – but, in the final analysis, because it can. But the US approach to overthrowing governments in Latin America and the trail of tears and blood it left in its wake will no doubt be highly motivating to the broad masses of Latin Americans who will support the coming Latin American bloc.